When noted South African scholar Xolela Mangcu visited Julian Braxton's African History class this January, he gave students a riveting personal look at watershed moments in the continent's history.
Tracing his first political act to age 10, he explained life in "the thicket of things," growing up under apartheid in the 1970s in a militant black township. By age 15, "I was much more political than I should have been," he reflected. For some activists, he explained, harassment from police was "almost an everyday occurrence."
Described by the Sunday Times as "possibly the most prolific public intellectual in South Africa," Dr. Mangcu today is a professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and author of The Colour of Our Future, an acclaimed book on race in contemporary South Africa.
In advance of his visit, the juniors had read his essay, "A Critic in Retrospect." It begins with the opening line, "For many years, I was one of Nelson Mandela's vocal critics."
Recounting his evolving friendship with Mandela, he brought to life for the girls this signature figure of the crumbling of apartheid. What outsiders often don't realize, he noted, is that Mandela "was always a contested figure" within his own country. For example, Mangcu and others aligned with the Black Consciousness movement disagreed with what they saw as Mandela's avoidance of the topic of race.
He smiled as he described his first meeting with the legend—pulled over to Mandela's table at an event by an insistent colleague—and getting up the nerve to ask him to present a lecture for the Steve Biko Foundation, which Mangcu ran at the time.
His stories of their relationship held a timely lesson. As a critic of a person you've never met, he said, "it's easy to be ideological and draw lines in the sand. When you start meeting someone, they become human."
"I've become much more empathetic of the compromises that [Mandela] had to make," he told the class. Importantly, though, "my friendship with him was not based on me changing my mind."
What the professor's latest project? The first biography of Mandela to be written by a black South African. Past books have all been written by British and American scholars. "Think about that for a second," he exclaimed. "It's just criminal."
NOTE: Winsor's very first student trip to South Africa will take place this March.